“Can’t be an accident,” Gwen said.
“Has to be,” Ruby said. “He was waking up. People stretch when they’re waking up.”
“What’s going on?” Ella asked, coming by now that the baby was asleep and with a sitter.
“They won’t just watch the scene and ogle the guy’s muscles as he turns into the Hulk,” Ke Mara said.
“We were just talking,” Ruby said to Ella.
“’Bout what?” Ella asked.
They replayed the scene in question for her on Mara’s cellphone: scientist Bruce Banner, with streaks of green across his skin, had rolled out of bed, and stretched his arms - one hand breaking through a wall.
“Doesn’t that look like an accident?” Ruby asked Ella.
“Deliberate,” Gwen Arri said.
“I don’t know,” Ella said.
“Nobody puts their hand through a wall by accident.”
If its shoddy construction work, he might.
“Yeah, because as soon as he woke up, he had to think ‘hm, think I’ll unleash the kraken before I have breakfast,’” Ruby said.
Gwen replied, “Davy Jones has the kraken.”
“Maybe I should go,” Ella said quietly.
Belle had looked around in most of Midas’ castle by now, remembering childhood games played with Abigail in these corridors and some of these rooms. And then Belle reached the Room Of Defeateds - a room with part of or all of the various things which had threatened Midas’ kingdom…all now safely turned to gold.
Houyhnhnms. Mapinguari. Dragon. Chimera. Humbaba. And others.
Belle was well into the room when she heard someone approach - three someones - and armored guards slipping and falling to the floor, unable to right themselves.
When they came into view, Belle saw the three men were clerics, agents of the High Church, the body devoted to the spiritual wishes of the Imperial Family. “You will come with us,” the leader said.
“It’s futile to argue,” he said. “You will come, one way or another.”
"My uncle -"
"Your uncle is no matter," one cleric said to Belle. "We came for you, and we’ll be taking you."
"For what, a scourging?"
"Your presence is desired by the High Church. Your punishment can be reduced by standing for us, so we may admonish Rumplestiltskin for his crimes."
"He wouldn’t hold still for that," Belle remarked, and then she realized the only way it would happen. You would use me as…as bait to catch Rumplestiltskin? No! "I won’t do it," Belle said.
"It’s already been decided."
A snuffling sound erupted, giving the clerics pause. "You said Midas has no pets," the lead cleric said to the others.
"He has never had any," a junior cleric said. "Does he, dukesdottir?" he asked of Belle.
Belle said nothing defiantly.
"Answer!" the head cleric said.
"Leave me!" Belle countered.
Strains of growls drifted around them.
"Still as stones," he said. “Be still as stones."
Priest magic, Belle knew. Whatever was there, would be rock now. "Stay back," she said.
"Rumplestiltskin will come for you. I don’t care what its reasons are - it will come."
"No," Belle breathed. "No, he won’t come. Not for anything."
"The holy fathers disagree with your opinion, and I obey them. Now -"
Growling. A trio of it from their left, a paired growl to their right.
Belle knew the accounts well enough to be terrified : Have they unleashed the - No, they can’t be so stupid. Uncle Midas, did you?
A blur of motion flexing overhead, flinging pellets of molten gold from expanding wings onto the clerics.
Gold was melting, dripping from the bodies of the chimera and of the mapinguari, bodies which flexed with newfound flexibility and life. The gold pooled on the floor and flowed towards Belle.
"No," Belle whispered, keeping herself flush against the gold-brick wall.
The youngest cleric was crushed flat by the mapinguari’s taloned paw.
"The charge has just changed," the cleric said. "It was Guilt of association. Now it is witchcraft."
"Call it off," another cleric said.
Why would I, even if I could? "Don’t you want me to die if I am a witch?" Belle asked as the chimera’s mouths tore another cleric to ribbons.
"You will be handled - my brothers will deal with you!" the lead cleric vowed.
It was the last thing he ever said.
Belle stared at the beasts - at the two hungry mouths of the mapinguari and the three salivating muzzles of the chimera - and waited for the inevitable ending.
Midas looked at the collapsed carcasses of the chimera and mapinguari, the beasts' souls having fled; Granny and Sinuhe standing beside Midas while knights and guards sifted through the remains of those dead from animal attack.
"Midas, good man, was this…?" Sinuhe asked.
"My power has never done such a thing as this, but I don’t deny I would have done this if I could have. The Church has certainly given me cause."
"My lord," one of the guards said. "There is no sign of your niece."
"A small mercy."
"That’s curious," Granny said. "Observe," pointing to the pooled gold. "It gathered and moved uphill," against the slight tilt of the floor.
"There’s evidence her highness was standing there," that guard said.
Sinuhe and Granny looked at Midas, who shook his head. “That is not normal for anyone.”
"What did the Nixie do to Belle?” Granny asked.
“And what do we do with that Prince now?” Sinuhe asked Midas.
“Send him on his way.”
Henry frowned before he went back to re-read that paragraph. Did I just never notice King Midas offering Prince Charming sanctuary and being politely turned down - or was that never in here before?
Either was possible, he had to admit… it was such a small cluster of lines on the page, easy to skim right past them, even when reading intently.
Belle knew instinctively where every other person from the other side was. She could sense them - her power did a headcount of everyone, and that helped wake her up further.
No. Not every one. Rumplestiltskin is beyond my sight. But of the others…
Hyde was just barely able to stop himself from murdering tourists at the gas station. Dodo had gone insane, and taken to clubbing the unsuspecting. Several princes had formed a hunting party to get revenge. Grendel and Beowulf were doing more damage to property and bystanders than to each other. Arthur and Roland were brawling over a lady‘s attentions. Someone got them to start remembering…
Belle shook her head. Some people are dangerous when they remember all of who they were. Others are dangerous when they remember one part and not the whole.
Even the most secure castle has a bolthole for when there is no longer a viable option. Fortunately for Belle, she knew where the bolthole was. And she ran. Ran from the verdant fields behind her uncle’s castle to the ogre-scuffed wastes that had been orchards before her fateful deal. Ran as fast as she could as far as possible, stopping only when she felt a stitch in her side.
The ground here was grooved from scuffings and divots left by giant feet. Ogre feet.
Belle chose to walk a while to catch her breath before she resumed running, keeping an ear tuned to pursuit the entire time.
After a while, she encountered a man pulling a small pushcart loaded with pine logs and pine branches. “Where is everyone?” Belle asked.
“The ogres had their victories over a month ago, and left for the season,” he said.
“But if it’s safe…?”
He smiled. “I came because I enjoy a business agreement with some ogres who have this use for an enthroned lord. For others, I assume the battle is too recent.”
“Why do you work with ogres? I mean, with all the kingdoms and duchies there are, surely you could find easier work.”
“That is possible. Though it assumes I wish for easier work.” And he chose to explain: “Once, I enjoyed the love of the Dragon Princess, daughter of the sea god. I grew homesick, and she sent me home. For all but myself, I had been gone for 400 years. I cannot even return to my love, for I lost the returning mechanism she gave me.”
Acceptance, Belle thought, Resignation. Punishing himself even though the loss must have been accidental. But… why did he not strike a deal with Rumplestiltskin or someone so he could return? Did he fear what the cost would be, or was the reason political?
“With an empty heart, I rose in authority until I was lord of a province; it was in that state I learned of a very beautiful woman. To see her smile, and hear her laugh, I traded places with her husband. I have furrowed fields and sold timber ever since.
“Do you have a name?” Belle asked.
“Urashima, who never used magic.”
Nixie? Really? "You expect me to believe you?" Emma asked her, Emma leaning against the wall by the door. Same claim Henry has, that nobody in town is anything but a fairytale figure who doesn't know the truth about themselves. The difference here is Miss Noapte doesn't see me as a savior.
"I do care if you believe me or not," Noapte said. "Either I am honest, or I am insane," May Noapte said from her spot on the sanitarium bed.
Well, at least she's honest - with me and with herself. "And you wrote Henry’s book," Emma said.
"I gave to a schoolteacher. But yes, I had a role in it."
"And you’re still remembering more all the time?"
"Bit by bit, further and further into the past."
"But the past as depicted in that book."
May Noapte nodded.
"And all since your nervous breakdown a couple of years ago," Emma said.
"When has revelation ever been easy?" May asked her. "My walls broke, and I have been excavating ever since."
"Gave up a good job, as I understand it." Crime lord.
"Because this isn’t real?" Emma asked.
"On the contrary. Because it is," May said.
"If you're the Nix-"
"I am not fully the Nixie of the Millpond or of elsewhere," Noapte interupted Emma. "I am as much of the Nixie as can exist in this world. I am still fully May Noapte as well."
"Fine. Don't you want everyone else in town to remember who they are?" Emma asked.
"And have the old rivalries return?"
"Like how you said you'd have to kill Dr. He if he remembered?"
"Who is he?"
"The clues proved insufficient?"
Emma considered... The joke about 'de Nile', Dr. He's comment about living in the best possible place, ... "Moses? Ramses II?"
"Sinuhe the Sailor. I would have expected you to know that."
"Why, because I'm the daughter of Snow White?"
"And of King David. I thought you said you read the book."
"You haven't explained why you want everything to stay...hidden, for want of a better word. "What sort of rivalries?"
"In every story, there is a winner and at least one who loses. And if their loss means they die, realize that they have allies, relatives, and patrons. And they can all speak to higher powers."
"Me. Rumplestiltskin. Fairy Godmothers. Things worse than any lawyer joke.
"Now ask yourself, Little Emma - how many people of this world would give blood or children to achieve their aims."
Belle was chewing some berries and looking downslope at a fast clean river when she heard noise behind her. When she looked, she saw it was the clerics.
She tripped and fell, tumbling and rolling a long way down the slope. Painfully long, to Belle.
When she came to a stop finally, she found herself on the muddy shore of a broad river with no bridge or crossing stones in sight. There was only a brand-new rowboat tied to a stick on the shore.
"Hello?" Belle called out as she pushed herself up. "Hello?" she asked, wincing at all the places that hurt. She could see the clerics on their way, running down the slope, keeping on their feet the whole way.
A man rose a little from the river. "Clerics? Near my water? What reason could you give for what is perilously close to trespass?" he asked the clerics.
"She is ours. Back away," one cleric told him.
"Is that so? She is a cimmaron, a runaway?" And then he looked at Belle and asked, "This is so?"
"No, no it’s not so," Belle said. "They want to kill me. Worse than that, they want me to kill someone."
"Interesting," the river man said. To the clerics, "Who is she, and who is your intended victim this time?"
One cleric said, "A woman whose guardian has forfeited any authority to raise her or make decisions regarding her."
"Thus leaving her for the church?" asked in a voice anyone could hear the laughter in.
"You don’t want to cross us, river thing."
He raised his eyebrows and said to Belle, "Get in the boat."
"W-" she started to ask.
"In or die. Your choice."
Belle got in the boat.
Seconds later, the entire slope collapsed, the clods of dirt and grass sinking beneath a now-broadened river.
Sensing things about them as his water pulled them down and under, the river man said, "Oh good, you boys grew up around horses," and turned to Belle. "Cover your ears."
"Why - What are you going to do?" Belle asked.
A final bubble of air escaped where the clerics had been pulled underwater.
The river man shrugged. "Nevermind. Sometimes they scream."
Belle tried not to let her fear show.
“You’re Belle. I am a River Demon.
"You attempted to lift Rumplestiltskin’s curse," the River Demon said.
"I did," Belle said.
"Did you or do you know what the outcome would have been?"
"He would be free."
"And you would be evil," the River Demon said, watching for her reaction."
I… I’d be evil? "It would be acceptable." At least he’d be free. That’s true love, right - taking their burden upon yourself?
"Interesting. Most would deny any prospect of becoming an evil thing. Yet you would be congenial to that fate?"
"As long as Rumplestiltskin’s happy," Belle said.
"Happy? Oh, he would be furious."
"Because I saved him?"
"Because, in part, of what he has gone through."
The River Demon waited until Belle had ruminated on that for a while longer, and, when it appeared she was about to ask a question, "Why didn’t you take the boat?" he asked her.
"It wasn’t mine," Belle said.
"A considerate human."
"I try to be."
"And what do you want?"
Time with Rumplestiltskin had cautioned her: "I don’t want anything."
A little trick Rumplestiltskin had taught her: "What do you think I want?"
"Would you like it alphabetically, chronologically, or -"
Belle interrupted him. "Who are you?"
"To talk to you like this? I am a River Demon."
"I’ve never seen a demon before."
"True. But there is evil in you."
"That’s not possible." Did Rumplestiltskin curse me? Were those clerics right? NO!
"Evil and gold, locked in a battle for your skin." He watched her facial expressions. "And you are aware of this."
"My uncle did it to save me," Belle said.
"I am familiar with Midas," the River Demon said. Nor is it all Midas‘ gold. "Would you care to move on without incurring bargains; or do you wish me to help you in a way which increases your uncle’s debt, or decreases it?"
Three options? "Decreases. What do I need to do?"
Every other human would take one of the other options. "His Majesty is not alone in preferring the days of the Empire. Revive it - and I will be in your debt, with Midas’ debt erased."
"And if I can’t?" Belle asked.
"It depends how hard you try."
Belle nodded. "Does it cost anything to ask for suggestions on where to start?"
"Neither to ask nor to receive an answer. Go into ogre lands, and help someone who needs help?"
"How do I get there?" Belle asked, and the rowboat bumped against what had been the far shore.
"You start with a step," the River Demon said.
Belle stood up and was about to step out of the rowboat, when the River Demon said, "Wait."
"Yes?" Belle asked, wondering if he was going to give her something easier to do.
"Why did you go with Rumplestiltskin?"
"Because I gave my word."
"A vow keeper; good. And what prompted the deal?"
"To keep my land safe from ogres."
The River Demon smiled. "Repetition."
"Rumplestiltskin became Evil so his family would be protected. Has he told you how that ended?"
"No. He mentioned his son left like his wife did."
"And this told you what?" curious.
"They died," Belle said.
"An incorrect assumption. Who wants to live with evil, away from all friends and family?"
"I was willing to."
"Then your character is stronger than Her Majesty Snow White’s blighted father. I have no further questions," the River Demon said, granting her a sweeping bow as Belle stepped off the boat. "Though sadly, I have mentioned he who is an apostate from his loved ones, and thus my life is forfeit."
"No," the River Demon said, and was sucked into the depths of the river. Seconds later, horse heads began to float up to the river’s surface. The horses rose up and stood on the water, about to charge.